Mexico is a word composed of metztli (moon), xictli (navel) and co (place): the place in the navel of the moon. That is, in the navel of the lake of the moon, as the Lake of Mexico is called.
I learned this from a poem by Octavio Paz, perhaps the greatest poet Mexico ever produced. It is his poetry that first led me to Mexico and the many trips I made there at different junctures in my life. I’ve always loved this country. My friend, Rodrigo, used to tell me, “We Mexicans? We are surrealism.” He was a guy I knew who studied philosophy and poetry at the University in Mexico City. He was full of stories about Diego Rivera and the Trotskyites of Mexico City. . .of Pancho Villa and Zapata. Much of what I learned about Mexico early on was from him. It was he who pointed me to Paz, Rugama and Galleano; writers who changed the way I saw the world.
The more I read about the current lawlessness and anarchy in Mexico, the more I wonder how it got that way. Was it the abject poverty, NAFTA, our stupid, fruitless and continually tragic “War on Drugs?” Or is it, more likely, the inevitable intersection of all of these events. It is a bit like watching three speeding cars all headed for the same corner–in slow motion.
In Charles Bowden’s Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, the Mexican army is finally called in to combat the narco-cartels and the inevitable happens. The soldiers are eventually killed or lured into bodyguard jobs for the cartels. At one point, all of the cartel kingpins wind up with police or military protection. Soldiers wind up clipping informants and Mexican cops for money. Anyone who attempts to keep a list or facts about the missing and “disappeared” are marked for death. The end result is that Juarez has the highest murder rate in the world; higher than Baghdad.
This city is a pressure cooker. . .there is no escape. Mexicans cannot legally flee to America and there is nowhere else to go in Mexico that offers anything like safe harbor from the long reach of the cartels. What the President of Mexico cannot say out loud is that he no longer has control of his country. Even tourists are being kidnapped and ransomed for 5 or 10 grand in places like Tijuana. The outlaw cultures like La Linnea, Los Rebeldes, and the Aztecas are now better armed than the army in Mexico. There are states in Mexico, like Chihuahua, that are completely lawless.
Still, the maquiladora culture with its poverty-wage jobs, flourishes along the border of Texas and the marijuana-methamphetamine business is roaring forward.
American bigots hold all of this up as an argument for tightening our borders, not realizing that the lion’s share of those coming over the border illegally are doing so to escape the madness. The narcos do not want to come here where they’d be subject to the much more harsh Texas Rangers or DEA or ATF. Mostly, it is the folks who want jobs and to unburden themselves from the abject poverty and insanity of Mexico and what it has become since the cartels and NAFTA have had their way with their culture.
Octavio Paz lived abroad for many years as an ambassador and traveling academic before returning to Mexico City in 1971 and he damned near didn’t recognize his home. It had become an urban mess mired in poverty and crime. Paz died about five years ago and one is almost happy he was not around to see the rapid disintegration of his homeland’s rule of law. His suite of four long poems, Return, from 1976, were poems of rage and disaster about the Mexico he came home to. They are his “Mexican” poems and actually among my favorites of his long and luminous body of work. I don’t think there is a poet out there who had a better role than the one Paz had from 1957 to 1987. There was no better poet in any language on this planet than Mexico’s former Ambassador to India, Octavio Paz.
I missed a chance to see Mr. Paz read at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum here in Chicago about a decade ago, too my everlasting regret. A friend who went later told me he read one of the poems from Return and, like an asshole, missed it. One of the greatest things about Paz’s poems is how much they reward re-readings. They are like those great works of art that reveal themselves fully over time. Paz employs no devices, no tricks, just rich radiant language that keeps beginning. The Return poems are layer upon layer of revelation, much like one of those pinhole camera images where one can see inside and outside at the same time.
In these poems, he warns us of the soldier and his mortal pride; the snake and his rattle. The poems now seem, to me, to be an eerily prescient foreshadowing of the Mexico that was waiting to be born in the ruinous blood of this new century.